This post also appears on my knitting blog
Last month I wrote about a package of memorabilia that my sister sent me. In it were documents from my Uncle Michio that he had sent to my mother sometime in the mid- to late-80′s and included a translation of our family history (that is, translated from ancient Japanese to modern Japanese) and a genealogical chart for their immediate family. He knew I was interested in our family history and after my mom and I visited Japan in 1985, he started compiling some of the information to send me. He later sent it to my mother, rather than to me, since much of it was written in Japanese. I think he expected that I would sit down with her and listen while she translated the information for me. Probably due to other things going on in our lives at the time, I never knew that he had sent her the chart or the letter. I discovered it last month with the other items in the box.
Several years ago, I learned that my mom had a brother who died during World War II. More recently, she shared a little more about the day he disappeared, giving me details that led me to believe that he was “lost during the war.” It wasn’t until I saw the chart my Uncle sent that there was more significance to his disappearance than I could have imagined:
It appears likely that he perished during the firebombing of Tokyo. More specifically, the incendiary bombing of urban centers all over Japan, using bombs filled with what would become the precursor to napalm and often described as “jellied petroleum” or “jellied gasoline,” and in this case, dropped in heavily populated areas of Tokyo. But on this day 65 years ago, in the neighborhood where my mother’s family lived, my Uncle Osamu died. History came alive the moment I saw the date.
Accounts of that day in Tokyo are so difficult to read. Survivors can rarely be coaxed to talk about that day and I’m not likely to ever ask my mom to tell me more about it. She was 14 years old on March 10, 1945, and a student at Keisen Girls’ School in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo (from April 1942 – March 1946). I recall that she has always had a difficult time watching any war footage (Iraq, Desert Storm, etc) or seeing any images of fire. And, although her older brother Osamu was one wartime death among hundreds of thousands in Japan, there are still questions about this one young man and some whispered rumors within the family of what really might have happened *. His body was never recovered, but seeing this date finally helps me to understand (after reading so many gut-wrenching accounts of this day 65 years ago) what my mother meant by “lost.”
On March 9 and 10, 1945, before dawn, 279 B-29s dispatched from the 73rd, 313th and 314th, 31 from the 500th Bomb Group, attack Tokyo urban areas with 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs from between 4,900 feet and 9,200 feet. Fifteen square miles of the Tokyo urban area is burned out.
The numbers are almost unfathomable. But one young man died that day and that man was Osamu:
And the earliest known photo which again, I found in the package my sister sent:
I’ve labeled the photo to indicate who everybody was. The photo was clearly taken sometime in the summer, so I believe it to be 1931, and my mom would have been around 1-1/2 years old.
I was so close to never knowing that I had this highly personal connection to such an infamous day in American and Japanese history. But it’s important to me because without that connection, I might never have understood the significance of what happened that day and how so little (if any) is written about it in history books. Some of you might remember this post from 2008 in which I shared my first glimpse of what my mom’s life might have been like in Tokyo during WWII. Back then, I didn’t know that my uncle’s death was tied to this day and to events similar to the ones depicted in the animated film Grave of the Fireflies.
A continent away, the same year my Uncle Osamu died, my father was in high school and planning his enlistment in the US armed forces. Although the war had ended by the time he enlisted, he clearly had the desire to leave Ohio for more exotic locales, eventually arriving in Tokyo sometime in 1949. The rest, as the old cliché goes, is history.
*I no longer have any family members currently living who know the details about what happened to Uncle Osamu the day he disappeared. I can’t stress enough that had it not been for Wikipedia and the internet, I’d never have this information or insight